No Bricks Without Clay

“Data! Data! Data!” he cried impatiently. “I can’t make bricks without clay.” (Sherlock Holmes in The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle)

“And while we’re on the subject, Watson, you also can’t make those terrible ashtrays beloved of amateur potters, so it’s not all bad.”

I’ve used this quote before but, in this case, I’m talking about students. I cannot produce graduates without first year students, and I have no first year students unless interested students come in from the schools.I’ve just returned from a school visit to years 10-12 and, regrettably, I don’t have many bricks. Last night I attended a careers night that was a joint event between two fee-paying secondary schools, one all-girls, one co-educational. There were three presentation slots allocated across the night and, because of space limitations, the more interest you had, the more slots you got.

Medicine had all three slots filled, law had all three and teaching had all three – all with standing room only. Journalism had all three slots filled. Media studies had two, sports studies had two.  Information technology had one – right at the end of the night – and I only had eight people scheduled to attend. Of these, seven were male and one was female. And that is the total number of bricks that I have from two prominent, highly academic and well-resourced schools in my primary catchment. What puzzles me the most is that one of these schools has one of the richest IT environments in the state and these students are surrounded, every day, by the fruits of the labours of my students. But, as I’ve discussed before, Computing/IT/CS/ICT/IS has a loosely defined identity and doesn’t have the best image to start with.

I’m disappointed by the level of interest but I’m not surprised. The attendees were almost all from Year 10 – the peak of interest in our school body, with one Year 12 signed up to attend but, I believe, who didn’t show up. Regrettably, it because obvious that my placement at the end of the night put me into the burnout zone for several of the students. One attended, put their head down on the table before I’d started speaking and only raised it to leave at the end of the talk. Even the parents looked a little glazed over at the start and it took a lot of showmanship to bring people back into the activity. However, I think that we had a good showing for those people who were there. As always, the problem is that vast number of people who weren’t there.

Tomorrow, I disrupt my schedule completely to fly to Sydney to discuss a systematic, sponsored outreach activity into schools to try and fix this. What I would like to see, in 2-3 years time, is full sessions and standing room only for Computing and ICT sessions, with a strong showing from both genders and under-represented groups. It was useful to be on the ground to see the problem face-to-face but I’d be lying if I said that today wasn’t starting on a demoralised note.

Tomorrow, we try again to fix the problem.

5 Comments on “No Bricks Without Clay”

  1. Nick, I will be interested to hear what you end up doing with the outreach concept. I think you identified a universal issue and not one exclusive to Australia. I look forward to more on the topic as you move forward.



  2. Liz Phillips says:

    Okay. It is absolutely mind boggling to me that young students on an academic track are not paying attention to job prospects news–news that states (at least in the United States) that law and medicine are NOT the career fields of the future. It used to be that students graduating from a four-year undergraduate program on the pre-law track who got into law school could count on a large starting salary. In the last four years, projected income has halved. It is expected that the majority of law students who pass the bar will start out at the average gross pay of $60,000/year. Law school loans for said income averages around $300,000. (That’s excluding the most exclusive law schools that charge outrageous tuition and fees to land their lawyers those highly coveted $100,000 jobs. The big money is gone.
    (I wonder how much impact IT has had on the need for lawyers…)

    As for doctors, most of them I know do not see the medical profession as profitable. Million dollar incomes are shrinking, and there are fewer places to “invest” income. Those free medical screenings for all women has doctors crying foul. But I am one of the people who won’t spend money on medical tests when I know the money is essential elsewhere in the family budget. We have medical students so heavily in debt that if national insurance is ever implemented, these new doctors will go broke.

    To get to the point, if the tends are the same in other countries, computer science is a lucrative option for male and female students. I wonder if pulling up the news articles that have been circulating online in the US will help you make your case. I know that if I were to change careers (pretending I am a good bit younger) I would only consider computer science and business ventures that market alternative (green) energy. (And the latter depends upon the former in so many ways it’s not funny.)

    With my twelve- and thirteen-year old students, I push critical thinking, solving math problems to the extent that they do the math on the left side of a paper and then explain in details (using words) how they solved the problem.,.step-by-step. It drives me crazy that most kids wants to be a sports star or a media celebrity. Parents who nudge their kids in the direction of law and medicine are not paying attention to trend predictors that clearly state half the jobs that will be available this century haven’t even been dreamed up yet, and 90% of those jobs are computer science/IT related careers. Hmmm.


    • nickfalkner says:

      The Law people were actually saying, in their session, “Money? No. Glamour? No.” and that’s here where we don’t have the student debt. This is, sadly, more evidence of how much we don’t think in the long term. For exactly the same reasons why increasing punishments for crimes doesn’t actually deter people, letting people know what could happen in three years seems to have little impact. (Even if they think that the job market is tight, they consider that they are the ones who will get the jobs that are available – despite this not scaling – much as criminals consider that punishment is something that will happen to people who get caught, and of course they’re too smart to get caught.)

      What’s this nonsense about being too old for career change?!?! Feh, I say!


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